He Has “Mastered” This Skill at Home; Why Doesn’t He Do It Anywhere Else?

This article was contributed by Louise Southern of ASNC’s Clinical and Training Department.

Long ago, I worked with a young child who could answer a variety of social questions such as “What’s your name?,” “Where do you live?,” and “What is your mom’s name?,” but he could only answer the questions under certain conditions. When asked the questions at school by others, or when the phrasing of these questions was varied, he struggled to respond. What was happening here was a classic problem with generalization.

Generalization is the process of transferring skills or concepts taught in one set of conditions to other conditions. This includes transferring the skills into other settings, to other people, to other materials, formats, and to other activities. It often involves making connections between representations, responses, or things in order to see a broader, “big picture” concept. Generalizing skills from the teaching context to real-life applications is incredibly important. A skill “mastered” in the classroom or “mastered” in the home setting but not applied to real-life situations is not particularly functional. Despite its importance, the process of generalization is sometimes treated as an afterthought, rather than carefully considered when a new skill or response is first taught.

When we think of generalization, we most often think of generalizing a skill from one setting into other settings. For example, we might teach an individual how to ask for help when needed in the classroom. This skill of asking for help must then be transferred, or generalized, into the home, the community, and the workplace so that the student is able to ask for help in those settings as well.

Additionally, an individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may associate a certain skill with the person who taught him that skill. They may struggle to generalize that skill to other people. Using the same example as above, a student may learn to ask for help from one teacher, but does not use the same skill when she needs help from other teachers, her supervisor at work, or her mother at home. She associates asking for help with one teacher. Thus, generalization must occur not only to other settings, but also to other people.

Furthermore, some with ASD may associate a particular response with a particular item, question, statement, exemplar/representation, or object. If the behavior of asking for help is associated with the question, “What do you need?” then the individual might not ask for help unless we first ask that question. In reality, this question is a prompt upon which the individual might become dependent. Generalized communication of “help” when needed is not likely to occur when this is the case. Furthermore, “help” is a concept that has many contexts and many variations (e.g., I need help when I am lost, I need help when I run out of paper, I need help when I don’t understand the instructions, I need help when I am behind on a deadline, I may need help when I am sick). Thus it may be necessary to support some individuals in connecting varied circumstances so that over time, they develop a working concept of help. Developing that concept of help can support the individual in correctly identifying when he might appropriately ask for help in new situations.

As professionals working with individuals with ASD, we must take systematically arranged and integrated steps to promote generalized responding across contexts. Here are some basic guidelines to consider:

  • Plan for generalization right from the start. When you select a skill or concept to teach, consider the end goal, so you know what you are working toward. Is this skill relevant in more than one context?
  • Provide close monitoring, feedback, and prompting (prompting that is quickly and systematically faded) along the way. Each new condition should be viewed as a new instructional context in which you carefully arrange opportunities for the individual to experience success practicing or displaying the new skill.
  • Teach the skill in a familiar setting with a familiar person and then practice the skill with multiple people under natural conditions. Practice the skill with multiple people, such as other instructors, peers, co-workers, and family members. The more variation, the better. Generalization involves the careful arrangement of increasingly novel and varied opportunities for the individual to experience success practicing or displaying the skill.
  • Practice the skill in multiple settings in which the skill would be naturally expected. Some with ASD may form associations of who and where to engage in certain behaviors. Specifically, they may associate a certain skill with the location in which it was taught, rather than gaining a broader “big picture” perspective of the skill. Thus, teaching the student the skill in multiple settings is crucial.
  • Target the skill or concept using multiple materials, examples, stimuli, and representations that are naturally embedded in the environment. When you are teaching a skill that initially involves particular materials, stimuli, or examples, it is important to quickly and systematically introduce multiple and varied representations of that concept. For example, if a child is learning to identify numerals, it is important in many cases to systematically introduce and teach various representations of the numeral (written, foam numbers, Play-Doh in shape of the number, on the board, in books, etc.). In this way, the child obtains a generalized concept of each number and can recognize it under various conditions. As another example, if you are teaching an individual to distinguish between safe pedestrian cross walk areas versus no-cross zones, you cannot simply target one particular intersection in that community and assume that he will then correctly discriminate between safe and unsafe areas. It would be important to teach the individual to recognize and respond to multiple versions of a crosswalk zone (and of course in multiple community locations).
  • Similarly, be sure to teach a wide variety of responses and give ample opportunities to practice those different responses. This will support the individual in generating a response in new situations, because he or she may have a range of options from which to “pull,” based on the situation. For example, if you are working with an individual on social initiations, there are a range of initiations that you might teach, such as “What are you doing?,” “That looks fun,” wave and smile, and “Can I try that too?”.
  • Arrange reinforcing consequences that are likely to occur naturally in the generalized contexts. When possible, it is important to arrange and deliver reinforcing consequences that are naturally related to the skill or response you want to see. When the consequence is one that is naturally connected to the behavior, it is more likely that this behavior will generalize to other contexts because those same contingencies between behavior and consequence naturally exist in those other contexts. For instance, if you are teaching the skill of asking for help, the reinforcing consequence that naturally relates to that behavior would be receiving the help that was requested.
  • Arrange reinforcement to occur intermittently (not every time), as it would in the natural environment. In the “real world,” social skills and other responses are not always reinforced. For instance, sometimes we start a conversation with someone and it takes off. Other times we may try and it fizzles pretty quickly. So while in the early stage of skill acquisition we may need to reinforce a behavior a skill every time it is performed, we need to quickly shift to a pattern of reinforcement that is more naturalistic, more intermittent, and somewhat randomized. This matches what we experience in natural contexts.
  • Review strategies directly before the individual is to perform a particular skill or response. Practice, role-play, and rehearse with them. Review any visual supports (e.g., a visual support that identifies an array of appropriate topics of conversation; a set of reminders or rules; a social story) that have been developed in relation to this skill or behavior that you are working to generalize.

Many practitioners and researchers have developed resources and curricula that address issues related to generalization of socio-behavioral skills and the development of “big picture” social cognition. A few to check out in the ASNC Bookstore include but are not limited to Jed Baker’s Social Skills Training and Social Skills and Frustration Management manuals, and Michele Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking™ and Superflex™ manuals and related resources. In addition, a number of assessments and curricula provide evidence-based strategies to promote generalized responding, particularly in young children with autism. These include but certainly are not limited to The Early Start Denver Model for Young Children with Autism, An Early Start for Your Child with Autism, How to Do Incidental Teaching, and Pivotal Response Treatments for Autism.

Louise Southern M.Ed., BCBA, a member of ASNC’s Clinical and Training Department, can be reached at lsouthern@autismsociety-nc.org or 919-743-0204. ASNC’s Clinical and Training Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to parents and professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and enhancing social understanding in individuals with autism.


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